Where They Are Now

Spock lives

The pediatrician who keeps a classic baby book up to date.

Courtesy Gallery Books

Courtesy Gallery Books

View full image

Since 2003, pediatrician Robert Needlman ’81, 85MD, has been the revising author of the classic parent’s guide Baby and Child Care by the late Benjamin Spock ’25. Needlman, a professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve and attending pediatrician at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, spoke to us by phone from the garden of the home he shares with his wife, Carol Farver ’85MD, a surgical pathologist.

Y: Weren’t you an English major?

N: I thought I wanted to be a professor of English, but then I had this notion of doing something a little more practical. I did take all the med school prerequisites.

Y: So do you use your English background at all?

N: This is going to sound really pretentious, but I try to understand the story of the kid who’s in front of me. For example, say a four-year-old boy gets angry and says these really outrageous things to his mother.

Y: Like, “I hate you, you doo-doo head”?

N: Worse. And the mother has this horrible thought: “He’s going to grow up just like his father, who’s in jail.” So you begin to unpack the whole story of the father, who was maybe abusive. And she has to stop seeing this little boy as a carbon copy of his father or she’ll keep overreacting and the cycle will get worse.

Y: How do you fix something like that?

N: As an expert, you can tell them that children who say horrible things are not destined to grow up to be horrible. Now they can think of their child differently.

Y: Can you really change lives in an office visit?

N: I think about that question a lot. During my fellowship [at Boston Medical Center] I started reading all about why reading aloud is such a great thing for kids. Nobody in pediatrics was talking about it back then. At the same time, I had this precocious little girl at home who loved nothing more than to be read to.

Y: And this was the beginning of Reach Out and Read, right? The program that gives needy kids a book at each doctor’s visit?

N: It was sort of my pet project. Now about four million kids a year get a book or two or three at their doctor’s visits.

Y: Not bad. So how did you get your other gig, updating the new editions of the Dr. Spock books?

N: Did you know that Dr. Spock was actually a Yalie? And guess what? He was an English major.

Y: Is that why he tapped you?

N: No, he died before I came on board. In about 2000 I got talked into working on the website drspock.com. When the pediatrician who’d been working on the book got too busy, it was natural for me to take over.

Y: I heard a much better version of this story.

N: Oh—Mary Morgan [Spock’s widow] always told this story: I was out in California interviewing with her to be part of the website, and I looked at my watch and said, “Oh, I have to go! I promised my daughter I would read to her.” And Mary thought that was pretty remarkable—to run out in the middle of an interview. But I didn’t really care that much if I got the job. I already had a day job.

The comment period has expired.